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International and Cross-Cultural Experience Research: Advice from Five Experts

We asked a handful of experts to share their experience conducting international research and any advice they have for others when navigating this space in-person or remotely.

Words by Ben Wiedmaier, Visuals by Allison Corr

Looking beyond one's own backyard provides a wealth of opportunities for any organization, especially the insights and design functions. From trend-spotting and expanding one's user base to more holistic outcomes like surfacing new use cases and value propositions, international and cross-cultural research is critical to any innovative brand or experience.

There are a lot of questions that should be considered before beginning, as going international presents both known challenges and the thornier unknowns. People Nerds tapped some folks working internationally to curate best practices, strategies, and tactics for making your first (or 100th) foray into this kind of work ethical and impactful.

Ask yourself, “Why am I asking this?”

By Lisa Gramling, SVP, Research Innovations & Intelligence at Momentum Worldwide

Although I lead our North American practice, my team and I consult with our international offices to ensure that our work is ready to capture the context our customers crave. We're often tasked with investigating experiences: What makes them delightful, fan-producing, and trend-spotting the next wave(s).

Here are some of my best-practices for international:

1. Find (and hold onto) a trusted partner

Whether its operational aspects like recruitment or incentives or the design of a study, having an on-the-ground partner for your country or region has really helped us. We use our partners for translations to ensure the feeling or framing is adequately communicated, we work to ensure sample sizes that are appropriate and reasonable given our timelines, and we bounce ideas on methods (e.g., interviews vs. mobile surveys).

These key contacts not only help us increase the confidence and rigor we feel, they help us turn around and keep our executive and internal partners updated; it sets an expectation so when the unforeseen happens, we have some runway to react accordingly.

You might start with a recruiter or facilitator/moderator. These are people who get to know a community and culture and are often willing to advise. If you have an international team presence like we do, try and offer someone an ambassadorship, something that empowers them to collect and maintain the organizational research knowledge about a place, people, or community.

The ambassador program has helped us when we've executed global research—it really aids in level-setting with stakeholders, selecting a direction for the research, and executing the work on-time. I cannot stress enough the importance of a trusted partner.

2. Ask: Do you need that?

One of the learnings from international research is the small (and large) nuances that affect surveys, interview guides, and screening criteria. When conducting research in a country or culture different from your own, get in the habit of checking your assumptions, asking, "Why am I asking this question?"

You'd be amazed by the connotations that can affect your work, or worse, create a feeling or sense of othering. You're conducting international research to give new perspectives, so take care when framing, phrasing, and creating questions.

Take something that we often screen for in our shopper studies: household income. Even with Canada, our neighbors to the north (we're based in New York City), that question needs to be carefully considered, as some Canadian respondents won't feel comfortable answering. Ask yourself if you need that question in a numerical response, or if you might reframe it to something about spending habits, perceived flexibility in spending, or even comfort spending.

Again, a small re-frame will help better capture the context of another community without trying to force your view on an issue. We've had these kinds of moments with screening in particular, where definitions of self and subject position might not only be hard to codify, but might not actually help us deliver the insights to our customers. That flexibility has helped us time and again.

3. Context-check

Just like some demographic questions might not translate clearly, we've had to—especially since COVID-19—be very rigorous in staying up to date on what's happening in the countries we're conducting research. "Shopping" looks much different in Brazil today compared to Japan.

Cases, vaccinations, lockdown measures, all affect our participants' ability to respond safely and accurately. We've had to really ensure we've got a sense of what the story is like on-the-ground in the places we're working.

Are consumers going to stores in general? If not, then launching a click-and-collect study might not make the most sense. As I've said before, take a second to gut-check what you're assuming about a place and its people, especially regarding day-to-day life. My team works to scale context, and we're not good at that if we don't consider the context of a place to start.

If you don't yet have a trusted partner, check international news, social media, and even international health organizations to get a sense of how safe and functional it might be to conduct research about a facet of life. Does doing research on your topic even make sense right now?

A small re-frame will help better capture the context of another community without trying to force your view on an issue. We've had these kinds of moments with screening in particular, where definitions of self and subject position might not only be hard to codify, but might not actually help us deliver the insights to our customers. That flexibility has helped us time and again.

Lisa Gramling
SVP, Research Innovations & Intelligence at Momentum Worldwide

Understand your audience

By Erica Brizzi, User Experience Researcher at RE:Lab, Whirlpool

Having a culturally diverse target audience is essential when researching for innovation and improving the products. As a global company, our key differentiating factor is to build appliances addressing consumer needs and requirements with empathy. Therefore, consumer research takes precedence in learning those changing needs in a timely manner.

Across the company there are some common steps that each project undergoes in order to get valuable and useful consumer data. Other than adhering to the regional specifications, usually all projects depletes standard consumer research procedures with notes to some key steps.

1. Define the goal

What do you want to learn and achieve with the research? Define the objective and which elements are applicable for the scope of the project. If it is exploratory research, maybe you can consider a broader audience. If it is a concept validation for a product in the market, you want to be sure to include only specific consumers.

Basically, be sure to understand the scope of the project to best meet the requirements of the research.

2. Check your assumptions

When working with different nationalities it is even more important to write down assumptions with a measurable hypothesis before planning for the research.

Clearly defined hypotheses can assist in validating or invalidating the research by synthesizing and analysing the data. Being aware of your assumptions will help you make less biased conclusions and prevent stereotype influences.

3. Define the audience

In order to define the consumer base for the research, it is pivotal to have a clear understanding of what market needs the project brings.

It is important to concentrate on regional commonalities and differences. Consumer behavior is influenced by their region and cultural preferences and it’s key to keep them in mind while selecting audiences.

It helps to write down which countries you want to be involved in and why. Then, seek alignment with marketing before conducting the research.

4. Select your audience

Now that you have all your requirements in mind and all parts involved in the research on the same page, you can start recruiting.

Make sure to ask relevant questions in order to get the people you aim for. dscout’s Recruit tool can be very helpful because you can check what parameters are already stored in the scout profile (e.g education level) and understand which ones are interesting for you. Then you can create specific one based on your research and select the audience accordingly.

These steps should go a long way toward setting a firmer foundation for your international research project.

It is important to concentrate on regional commonalities and differences. Consumer behavior is influenced by their region and cultural preferences and it’s key to keep them in mind while selecting audiences.

It helps to write down which countries you want to be involved in and why. Then, seek alignment with marketing before conducting the research.

Erica Brizzi
User Experience Researcher at RE:Lab, Whirlpool

Explore the power of partnerships

By Lindsey Brinkworth (Former Research Analyst) & Bryn Pernot (Research Specialist) at dscout

To make international research more manageable and help you meet deadlines, we’ve overviewed a few key strategies from choosing partners to analysis. For more information, be sure to check out our full guide to international logistics, especially if leveraging any remote capabilities to keep all parties involved safe.

1. Carefully choose partners

If you’re working to recruit internationally and are planning on working with a set recruiting partner, you’ll need to consider a few variables to determine which partners make the most sense for your project.

Primarily, you’ll want to know two things: Is your market in English? How many markets will you need to manage? If you’re running a simple 1-market project in English (ie. with the UK or EU, if you’re US-based), it makes sense to work with a recruiter and manage the fieldwork yourself.

However, for a 6-market, foreign language project, you’ll likely need a global partner to help you.

2. Plan for the unplannable

Truth be told, international research just takes longer. We recommend setting aside some extra time for the following:

  1. Running a pilot in your home country. This doesn’t have to be a full pilot—but pre-testing a study with a small group of people and focusing on the core parts of your study design can give you critical insight of any miscommunications that may get even less clear with translation.
  2. Reviewing submissions in English AND local language with client & moderator. Try to review within 24-48 hrs.
  3. Allot a minimum two weeks recruiting time when working with a recruiting partner. Expect three weeks for special recruits or larger sample size (50+ participants).
3. Recruit carefully and clearly

If you’re using a specialized remote platform, build in time to do a platform demo and show recruiters your pilot data so they get a sense of what you’re looking for. Work hand-in-hand with your recruiter to get your participant screener translation right.

  1. Recruiters will tend not to ask for an extensive screener, only core criteria. Identify your key items. If anything is flexible, lean away from giving them that. Less complexity is better!
  2. Your recruiter will know the proper balances, but the focus is primarily on getting bodies in the door. Don’t expect perfect demographic splits. Be explicit with your partner about what demographics you need them to collect (ethnicity/race, income, etc).
4. Bring openness to fieldwork

Both international moderators and participants may need some coaching. Make sure to stress the importance of willingness to be on camera (if you’re collecting multimedia entries). Include pre-written messages for the moderator that they can pass onto participants for unmoderated research (i.e. “This is what makes for a good entry, this is what makes for a not-good entry).

Some example language to stress the need for video specifically:

  1. “Our client is really invested in your story and what you have to share and it’s important to see your face as you tell it.”
  2. “It’s impactful to hear what you have to say and most impactful when we can see you saying it.”

Be extremely explicit when writing your research. At the beginning of all open-ended questions, clarify exactly how many sentences you want them to write.

At dscout we’re often colloquial in our instruction language, so make sure to write in a more straightforward (dry!) style in your missions, avoiding informal words and colloquialisms. Again, rely on your moderator to review your study design and flag any words that don’t translate well.

5. Analysis will be more nuanced

Cultural differences can make it difficult to assess the validity of the data. Is a specific point due to the specific people recruited, or because of cultural values or attitudes that we might be unaware of or unfamiliar with? Is there an important nuance missing because we aren’t fluent in or knowledgeable about the culture?

Consider working with partners who are knowledgeable in the culture who can help you validate your findings with respect to it. Here are a few methods you could consider integrating into the research:

  1. Conducting live interviews with scouts who are fluent in English
  2. Reviewing the findings with your recruiting partner or your management partner
  3. Reviewing the findings with a partner who is familiar with the culture of the market you’re studying (i.e., the translator who came into the office to review video)

Make sure to write in a more straightforward (dry!) style in your missions, avoiding informal words and colloquialisms. Again, rely on your moderator to review your study design and flag any words that don’t translate well.

Lindsey Brinkworth & Bryn Pernot
dscout

Plan for in-person and remote international research

By Matt Geary, Senior Manager, UXD Research & Insights at Lenovo and Dana Gierdowski, Senior User Researcher at Lenovo

In many ways, the act of conducting research internationally is no different from the act of conducting research domestically.

We’re still leveraging a lot of the same methods. Often, we’re having similar types of conversations (though sometimes with the help of an interpreter). We’re using the same process and rigor to ensure accurate conclusions and valuable insights are our final result.

The biggest differences however, show up in everything you do before you start “doing” research. Setting the table for an effective international research project includes background research, extra levels of logistics, and a little emergency planning.

1. Understand your hosts—operate with cultural nuance

One element of preparation is understanding the nuances in the culture you are visiting. Is there a type of greeting you should practice? A custom of removing your shoes when entering? The order in which people sit around a table?

Though you may receive some level of forgiveness as a guest, showing you have taken an active interest and care to make your research participants feel comfortable builds the rapport needed to bridge the cultural divide.

We also know many cultures struggle to give negative feedback for fear of coming across as disrespectful or rude. In these cases, it can be difficult to ask questions directly or get detailed responses. Instead, we try to ask for broader stories (“Tell me about…”) and follow with more aspirational (“What could have made that better?”) rather than critical wording (“What went poorly?”).

Sometimes we’re left to decode body language and non-verbal communication as a part of the data. Though it can feel less concrete, those reactions are still valuable data and being aware of the underlying cultural norms helps you translate their meaning.

2. Plan ahead to reach your users

When doing international research, there can be some logistical hurdles depending on the kind of data you want to collect and the users you’re trying to reach. Before we set the research table, we have to think about how we’ll get international participants to the table in the first place.

Most of the global studies we’ve conducted over the last year have been made possible by online platforms and tools that have allowed us to collect data remotely. But not every platform is available to users in every market due to various privacy policies; and for those that are, finding participants may still be a challenge and take longer for recruiters.

When deciding which countries we’ll target, we have early conversations with our platform reps to see if they can meet our recruiting needs in the target countries; and if they can, we factor in any additional costs and time associated with reaching those users. Planning for the added time and expense to recruit in harder-to-reach geographies is like snagging the reservation at the latest restaurant. You have to plan ahead.

3. Consider logistics for international travel and language barriers

Once you know you can get your targeted international users in the door, you’ll need to consider any language barriers and how to work through those. Diners need to be able to understand the menu before they can participate in a restaurant experience, and user research is no different.

When conducting research in non-English speaking market, we have our studies translated into the native language, which is a service that some platforms can provide for an added cost. Much like recruiting in different international markets, project managers should account for this additional expense, as well as the time that will be required to have the study translated.

Don’t forget about any back translations you may need once you have your data. For qualitative and/or video responses, factor in the time and expense to have those translated into your/your organization’s native language for analysis.

While your research trip may be a chance for you to visit a new locale, getting all your materials to that destination can be a bigger headache. Depending on the location, getting physical stimuli across borders can be extremely challenging and almost always requires extra time for larger items – or large quantities of items that won’t fit into suitcases.

Even then, strict customs agents can be unforgiving. If there’s no room for error, we’ll use a professional import/export firm, despite the extra time and money. The same is true for getting our researchers where they need to go. We’ve seen passport services and expeditors be the difference between successful research and expensive reschedules.

4. Conduct remote research—when you can’t dine in

As the last year and a half has demonstrated, it’s not always possible to do face-to-face user research. Conducting unmoderated and moderated studies online has been an effective way to address budget constraints and safety during the pandemic. But similar factors should be considered when working with users in different countries.

For moderated studies, you may need to hire an interpreter for your participants if you don’t speak their native language. It can be challenging to adjust on the fly in those settings and ask follow-up questions, since you're relying on someone else to translate. It’s somewhat similar for unmoderated interviews or tests in terms of working with translations, yet you don’t have the benefit of being able to follow-up in real time.

Some online UX tools offer machine translations, but those can vary widely in their accuracy and may require a heavier lift to make sense of your data. If time is of the essence, consider reducing the number of open-ended questions which create complexity in back translations.

Finally, keeping stakeholders and project teams engaged may also be an added challenge when working with users who speak another language and are in vastly different time zones. If a stakeholder can’t be present (either physically or online) and/or they’re listening through interpreters, engagement can decrease.

If possible, consider time zone differences and work to schedule live sessions so that key stakeholders can attend. When that won’t work, our stakeholders seem to engage more with adding media to our debrief updates, which can give the extra context more than long text updates.

Though doing research internationally can seem daunting, the core activities and goals remain the same. The difference, and often the challenge, is the preparation and planning needed to create a five-star research experience.

Though doing research internationally can seem daunting, the core activities and goals remain the same. The difference, and often the challenge, is the preparation and planning needed to create a five-star research experience.

Matt Geary & Dana Gierdowski
Senior Manager, UXD Research & Insights at Lenovo and Senior User Researcher at Lenovo

Don’t forget the “shock” moments

By Nikki Anderson, Founder at User Research Academy

In our hybrid world, there’s quite a few nuances to conducting 1:1 research. Below, I’ve curated a few things I’ve learned from researching international participants.

If you want to get a little more in depth on navigating research abroad, check out my other People Nerd’s piece on conducting research in another country.

1. Operations Matter

International research usually requires extra considerations. Recruitment might necessitate additional consent documentations to alleviate concerns and adequately inform folks.

On-the-ground partners are critical here, not only for screening suggestions and feasibility for sample sizes, but also suggestions for where to post recruitment materials if leveraging online communities or word-of-mouth strategies.

Similarly, conducting research internationally heightens data privacy, transfer, and security expectations. Where will the data live? How will it be stored? These are questions to get used to answering, especially if planning to use a platform to execute or assist your project in any way.

2. Note In-Session Nuances

Scheduling, incentives, recruitment, and translation get a lot of deserved attention when planning international research, but don't forget about the care and nuance when you get to your session, interview, or when programming the research activity.

Those shock moments can arise during:

  • Video: Even if you're using a translator, make sure participants can see you. This is, after all, human-centered research, and having the participant hear your intonation, pace, and see your nonverbals goes a long way to easing someone in a session. (Of course, be sure to mention video in any pre-research consent forms as being filmed varied widely across cultures.)
  • Cues: Speaking of seeing a person, strive to read up on the culture, country, or place you're conducting research in to sharpen your perception skills. This is certainly helpful during a moderated session, but knowing how folks think about space, place, and conceptual definitions can really help with unmoderated sessions (e.g., how confident does a person feel answering your question about family values, privacy, or other terms?).
  • Language and Norms: Our subject positionality can affect how we frame questions and activities. Without some pre-thought, research, and consultation with a trusted partner familiar with the community, culture, or country, we may miss opportunities to capture the range of responses of a project. Alternatively, we may confuse, embarrass, or mislead a person if we're not careful with our use of language; idioms, jargon, and accepted terms vary widely. Ask for another set of eyes before going live with anything.

Strive to read up on the culture, country, or place you're conducting research in to sharpen your perception skills. This is certainly helpful during a moderated session, but knowing how folks think about space, place, and conceptual definitions can really help with unmoderated sessions.

Nikki Anderson
Founder at User Research Academy

Ben is the product evangelist at dscout, where he spreads the “good news” of contextual research, helps customers understand how to get the most from dscout, and impersonates everyone in the office. He has a doctorate in communication studies from Arizona State University, studying “nonverbal courtship signals”, a.k.a. flirting. No, he doesn’t have dating advice for you.

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